Vikings

The People vs. Kirk Cousins

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

People love a reluctant hero. The grizzled loner who rides into town, just minding their own business until some flagrant villainy forces them to use their deadly skills for the greater good. It’s Clint Eastwood in his ‘70s westerns. Toshiro Mifune in the Japanese samurai classics. Wolverine. Han friggin’ Solo.

But what about a reluctant fanbase?

Kirk Cousins is undisputedly the on-field leader of the Minnesota Vikings. He’s the highest-paid player, the man under center. He’s the one reading the opposing defense, adjusting the play calls, calling the audibles. He touches the ball on nearly every single offensive snap. He is The Guy.

But is Cousins the leader of the Minnesota Vikings as a franchise, as a culture, as a kind of civic collective that stretches all the way from Pipestone to Two Harbors?

No.

Cousins has what a tactful marketing professional might label an “enthusiasm gap.” If you see someone wearing a Kirk Cousins jersey on the streets of Minneapolis, there’s at least a 50% chance it’s actually Kirk Cousins. Even the most purple-blooded football maniacs never refer to him familiarly by fun nicknames, despite the fact that the guy is an actual captain named Kirk, for Spock’s sake. Meanwhile, Wisconsinites talk about Aaron Rodgers like he’s the best friend they spent their formative youthful summers at the lake house with.

It’s actually kind of difficult to be the starting quarterback of an NFL team and remain so unpopular. We always expect the starting high school QB to win Homecoming King, but Cousins isn’t even being asked to the dance. (Which is probably good, because I tried to imagine Cousins dancing and instantly started bleeding from the ears.)

He hasn’t committed the kind of mortal sin that lands a QB in the NFL’s Atrocity Exhibition.

He’s not the Caligula of the massage parlor. Captain Kirk has never texted any photos of his phaser to members of the media. He’s never harmed any dogs (that we know of).

He’s just uninspiring. No reason to get excited, as a Minnesotan once sang.

His old pal Kyle Shanahan tried to hype him up to his former Washington Football Team colleagues by claiming that “his swag” was “having no swag,” which is a very creative way of describing the human equivalent of a keg of O’Douls.

Even in a state where mayonnaise is considered a hot sauce, Cousins is so blandly dorky that people can’t resist picking on him. He’s the spokesman for a pizza chain so bad it may yet instigate a war with Italy. Just the shot of him gleefully asking for another scoop of canned corn in the commercial makes you want to shoot your straw wrapper at the back of his neck.

He’s the “Do you like that?!” guy. There’s the whole weird “death rocks” thing, which could actually be kind of cool if a rugged dude like Brett Favre did it, but no. Cousins quoted Rocky IV, but he aligned himself with the guy who killed Apollo Creed in front of James Brown.

There are grander reasons to dislike Cousins, suggestions of some real darkness beneath the Men’s Warehouse Outlet poster-boy facade. His guilelessly overconfident anti-vax stance isn’t as rare as one might hope, but it’s especially prominent. Public-health implications aside, his dunderheaded suggestions for workarounds to the NFL’s COVID policy — Kirk-sized plexiglass boxes and outdoor meetings on a crisp Minnesota January morning — smack of the high school friend you can’t believe you haven’t already muted on Facebook. And speaking of old high school friends, Cousins is an alum of the same fundamentalist private high school in Michigan that gave us Betsy “We Need Guns In Schools to Fight Bears” DeVos and her brother, Eric Prince, the leader of an actual private mercenary army that has been accused of war crimes.

Guilt by association is a bit unfair, but it’s just so easy when you’re already predisposed not to like the person in question. And what exactly is there to like about Cousins?

Well, alas, he’s kind of good. His annual passer rating in Minnesota has only dipped under 100 once, in his first season here in 2018, when it was 99.7, per Pro Football Reference. The next two years? 107.4 and 105. And he did this behind offensive lines that varied from objectively awful to obviously not great, with a notorious lack of a reliable WR3 and an often-injured star running back.

And Cousins does have a particularly vocal cadre of defenders, although I’m not 100% sure most of them actually exist offline. His stans have cited his impressive numbers for years now in a constantly roiling argument about the relevance of his statistics versus accusations that he falters in clutch moments on big stages.

The more cynical Vikings fans will be quick to point out his pretty bad record in prime time games, his absolute struggles on Monday Night Football, and his tendency to pad his stats in hopeless losses and less-consequential games. (He plays so well in garbage time that my pal Quinton refers to him as “Garbage Unitas.” So I guess at least one Vikings fan does refer to him by a clever nickname.)

These points are valid, if a bit overblown. It’s the stuff you’d shrug off if anyone said it about your beloved hometown hero, who wooed the town with their charisma or strung together a few dazzling athletic plays in pivotal games. But someone brings it up anytime Cousins has an impressive performance.

So far this season, Cousins has been lights-out. Through three games he’s racked up nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions, no lost fumbles. His QB rating: a gaudy 118.3. He even broke off a long running play, although the sight of him toting the rock looks even more awkward than him doing the Electric Slide.

In a blind taste test, show these numbers to any Vikings fan circa 2011-17 and ask, “Do you want this guy as your starting QB?” Guaranteed, 100 out of 100 of them say, “Hell yes!” Although they might be a little less enthusiastic when the curtain draws back and they see that the guy in question is Kirk Cousins.

If you’re the dour Minnesota type who half-believes in sports curses (*raises hand*), Cousins is the perfect continuation of the Vikings’ hope-crushing legacy. You said you’d be happy with a pretty-good-if-not-great quarterback? Careful what you wish for. It’s the Twilight Zone-twisty caveat from every genie in a bottle. As Christina Aguilera told us, “If you wanna be with me, Baby, there’s a price to pay.” And Kirk just rubs us the wrong way.

That’s the raw truth of it. Cousins is the best quarterback the Vikings have had in a decade, and he’s probably going to be the best one they have for a while. He’s better than the pretty-good QB we all said we’d settle for back in the days of AP and the Jared Allen defense. Kirk Cousins actually is good. He’s also frustrating, uninspiring, and somehow almost violently dull.

No reluctant hero is going to ride down I-35 and begrudgingly save Skoltown. We do have our sharpshooter, but it’s us who’s going to have to get used to him. We just don’t have to like it.

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